The controversial Strandfontein shelter shows the importance of monitoring womxn’s rights during a crisis


“Independent monitoring to ensure that womxn’s rights are protected is particularly important in a time of crisis,” says Charlene May, a lawyer at the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), an African feminist legal centre striving to advance womxn’s rights and equality using tools such as litigation, advocacy, education advice and training.

“When the state takes on the responsibility of establishing places of safety for vulnerable persons such as the Strandfontein shelter it also takes on the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the people who [it] house[s] there, in particular vulnerable womxn who are dependent on the government for food and shelter. The right to be free from violence is enshrined in section 12 of our Constitution and is a right that everyone should enjoy, regardless of where they are situated within our society. “

The WLC believes that the City of Cape Town has failed in this responsibility at the Strandfontein shelter, a temporary camp set up to house 2 000 homeless people during the Covid-19 crisis. The camp has been at the centre of controversy for weeks over its poor health and social conditions.

Bronwyn Pithey, another of the WLC’s legal practitioners, says this is why the WLC will be an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, in support of the independent monitoring by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The SAHRC is opposing the City of Cape Town’s interdict to bar monitors from accessing the Strandfontein site. The commission was tasked with monitoring and investigating human rights violations during the period of national disaster.

The case is set to be heard in the Cape Town high court today, Wednesday May 20. The judge has stated that the WLC has been admitted as a friend of the court, which means that WLC  will be assisting the court by providing a gender lens on why monitoring and investigative powers of chapter 9 institutions are critically important to the welfare of society’s most vulnerable womxn, during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.

Controversial temporary shelters

According to Pithey, the WLC has been very concerned about the establishment of temporary shelters or safety sites for homeless womxn during the Covid-19 pandemic. These shelters are established in terms of the Disaster Management Act regulations, which mandated local government to set up shelters for homeless people, at which they can isolate and be cared for during our countrywide lockdown

“The WLC first became involved in the issue of the contested Strandfontein shelter site when we were instructed by a homeless woman to represent her after she was raped at the shelter,” Pithey says.

Thanks to community womxn’s right activists, the victim was moved to a shelter for abused womxn, at which she was able to receive counselling and treatment. None of these services were available to her at the Strandfontein site. 

This incident compelled the WLC to engage with the City of Cape Town about the safety and security of all the womxn living at the shelter and the city’s plans in terms of safety and security measures. The WLC’s involvement was necessitated because womxn are at such high risk of violence in South Africa in general and their vulnerability is compounded during the lockdown, when freedom of movement is restricted. 

The WLC also requested access to the site to consult with any other womxn who may have been victims of gender-based violence. Given the high rates of reported cases to the civil society organisations working on violence against womxn and the government’s own established hotline, it is not unreasonable to accept that womxn who are living in close proximity to men may be unable to access very specific services — and may be in desperate need of assistance. 

According to Pithey, the City of Cape Town denied the WLC access to the Strandfontein shelter and to date has not provided any details about safety measures or a specific plan being put in place to ensure the safety and security of womxn at the shelter, save to advise that the shelter is being closed by the City.

Monitors barred from Strandfontein site

The City has now launched an application against the SAHRC and its monitors to interdict any monitoring of the site, other than by a commissioner or staff member of the SAHRC. 

May says the application brought by the City of Cape Town is of grave concern to the WLC, because the monitors have been the only means through which womxn at the Strandfontein shelter have been able to raise concerns related to their safety and healthcare needs. 

“No matter where in South Africa a woman finds herself she is at risk of experiencing violence, but homeless womxn are at particular risk in a setting such as a temporary shelter, where research has shown she may be the victim of violence from the homeless men with whom she shares the space, as well as shelter staff and law-enforcement officers. It is for this reason, and in light of the City’s silence in the face of requests for what safety measures have been put in place, that independent monitoring is essential.”

According to May, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a humanitarian forum of the United Nations, sets out specific standards to which temporary shelters, such as the Strandfontein site, must comply to reduce the risk of gender-based violence. These include such measures as creating separate safe spaces for womxn and children, undertaking frequent gender-based violence safety audits, and that gender-based violence prevention strategies are incorporated into shelter policies.

“There is every reason to believe that the City does not have any such safety plan in place since, despite our enquiries, no details of any such plan have been shared with us and the WLC has been unable to locate such a plan. The role of independent monitors to assess whether a site like Strandfontein complies to these standards is, therefore, imperative,” says May.

“The matter also has broader implications as the national disaster management directives have placed restrictions on many of our rights. To ensure that rights violations at this time are documented and that victims of such rights abuses are provided with support and legal recourse we need to ensure proper monitoring and accountability mechanisms are put in place.

“During this time there should be scrutiny of government actions. It cannot be for local government to determine that it will not subject itself to being open, accountable and transparent around its activities and how it implements the regulations. Local government is clearly attempting to restrict access to and monitoring of its actions during Covid-19.”

According to May, by seeking to limit the powers of the SAHRC, an institution that is constitutionally mandated to monitor human rights, the City of Cape Town’s action risks setting a negative precedent that may have far-reaching implications for South African citizens in holding the state accountable.

“Looking at the bigger picture it is important to understand that the basis of a constitutional democracy is to have independent oversight. Our government’s Covid-19 response and disaster management regulations must, therefore, be subjected to stringent monitoring to ensure the safety and security of womxn throughout the country,” May says.

“How else can we ensure that human rights, and particularly womxn’s rights, are protected during these extraordinary times?”

The Women’s Legal Centre remains open for business, fulfilling its mandate to serve womxn and children, regardless of the circumstances. It can be reached on 079 421 8197 or via email at [email protected].

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